Ichiro’s decline has been made more mysterious by the uniqueness of his game. We don’t have a lot of examples of similar players in their decline phase, such that we could look at changes in his component stats and say –see, it looks like this is happening, he’s no longer doing this, so he’s worse. His 2012 might allow that kind of analysis (fewer groundballs, increased but weak line drives), but this year’s changes seem to stem from the change in approach that was predicated on the belief that the 2011 decline was real, so the primary goal in analyzing Ichiro should be determining what caused the 2011 decline.
It appears to be a massive babip decline, aided in part by a decrease in infield hits. It was noted many times in 2011 that Ichiro appeared slower, a fact apparently bolstered by a similar decline in UZR. It seemed foot speed was part of an age related decline that also included batted balls being hit less sharply. His .295 Bapib was significantly below his career average. However, looking over his Fangraphs page, the variability in babip was really brought home to me. His peak year of 2004, for example, contained a .399 babip, followed by .316 the next year. These numbers don’t really mean anything, except to show the kinds of babip’s and changes in babip that are possible without an underlying change in skill. Ichiro has undoubtedly lost skill since 2004-5, but the downshift in skill seems to allow a .295 to be reasonably included in the range of possible outcomes. Allowing for the decrease in expected babip from fewer infield hits, the numbers still might not necessarily indicate decline. Even the foot speed thing is questionable, considering that it hasn’t translated to the base paths, according to Fangraphs speed score and baseruns. He actually seems faster this year. This might be confirmation bias because of his higher UZR, but he seems to be running down more fly balls. I know of the issues people have with UZR and its variability. However Dave Cameron has argued before that defense can slump like anything else. DRS showed a defensive decline until this year, and disagreed with UZR about his 2010 season. However they both indicate (and it passes the eye test) very good defense this year. If we were forced to remove footspeed as an indicator of declining athletic ability that spread across other areas of his game, where does that leave us? Wallace Matthews of ESPN paraphrased “Yankees scouts” as saying Ichiro’s “athleticism and defensive abilities were undiminished.” The author quotes Cashman calling Ichiro a “reincarnation of Brett Gardner” which caused me to nearly break a rib laughing, but Matthews also has “Yankees scouts” saying Ichiro was “bored” and “playing down to his surroundings.” I have the same disgusted reaction to these things as you guys, but there is an underyling notion that the Yankees think Ichiro might be better than this.
The purpose of this post is to ask the frightening question: what if Ichiro’s 2011 decline was only partially due to age and much more the same kind of luck distribution that led to his 2005 season, a down year that in no way indicated decline in underlying skills. The change in approach in 2012 is a separate issue. I’m not a scout and I haven’t analyzed video to the extent that I know how different his approach is. I’ve just read that it is different -geared towards attempting to hit for power to make up for his apparently declining footspeed. Perhaps the mariners thought his batted balls in general weren’t as sharp, so attempting to hit for power would get the most out of the contact he did make, that were he to continue spraying groundballs, they would not be hit hard enough to make it through the infied. I’m a little confused in that most players with an end of career transition to old player skills, their contact rate declines and K rate increase as they transition to swinging harder and more selectively, but these things haven’t happened at all with Ichiro. It seems the change in approach is only shifting balls batted balls up on the spectrum of distribution groundballs are becoming line drives. Line drives are becoming flyballs. Flyballs are becoming pop ups. This has led to disaster as Ichiro doesn’t have the power to make it work. The same thing appears to be happening to Seager, except Seager hits everything harder seemingly.
What if the Mariners broke Ichiro by insisting or suggesting he change his approach (or perhaps this was all his doing)? I want Ichiro to succeed, even with the Yankees, and I wonder whether they or his next team might consider trying to revert him back to his old ways, and how that might work. Ichiro’s platoon partner in New York is a HOF deserving outfielder who was written off before he was actually done. I hope for and fear Ichiro’s revival as a Yankee.